Book review: A Tale for the Time Being

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Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American novelist cum filmmaker who lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Her father was American, her mother Japanese.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Canongate, 422pp, £20 hbk, £7.99pbk, £7.99 Ebook

She shares biographical dabs with one of her heroines in A Tale for the Time Being, a writer/film maker, called Ruth, who likewise divides her time east-west between New York City and British Columbia.

Self-examination is at the heart of this experimental fiction, playing playfully with time and creativity, and with the business of what it means both to be a writer, and perceived as one – as the “agent of the narrative” – as Ruth (the character) asserts. Early on you begin to wonder will this conceit be sufficiently gripping to carry a novel of 400 pages. But Ozeki holds an ace: while Ruth (the character) may be suffering from writer’s block (and later reader’s block!), her discovery of a lunchbox washed ashore and into her life (it contains a diary and other writings) saves the day.

Nao, a Japanese, teenager, the author of the diary, is the voice of life-lorn youth, on the one hand captivating, innocent, flirtatious, addressing her reader from a café table in Tokyo, confiding fantasies and concerns, on the other leading us skilfully and movingly through her short but eventful life. Has her diary floated accidentally across the Pacific, carried by the backwash of the 2011 tsunami? Is Nao still alive? Ruth reads and is gripped.

Nao, the child of an IT wizard, had gone with her parents to Silicon Valley, where she was raised. When her father lost his job, the family returned in disgrace to Japan. Their loss of standing, self-respect and the father’s suicidal moods – a sense of pointlessness which she shares – is sharply conveyed.

Nao pines for California, yet doesn’t belong there. ‘Hi!’ she exclaims with strained jocularity, ‘by the time you read this everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth.’

The ticking clock – how long will Nao last? By what means might she die? – is both pulse and impulse. At first you believe, like Ruth, you are reading a finite narrative bound in hard covers (a mock-up, as it happens, of the cover of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time), but later the words of the teasing diary begin to play tricks, to disappear, to give rise to in-jokes between the finder (Ruth the character) and her husband: “If you’re so sure the words were there,” he says, “then go find them…because it’s your job. You’re a writer.”

One of the novel’s central questions is: where do words come from? Do stories already pre-exist to be discovered, or are they created?

And do they exist if no-one reads them? Ruth Ozeki leads us through the business of writing, and its importance to the identities of her characters, and their survival over time.

The novel intercuts the diary segments with pages rooting Ruth’s life in her close-knit, environmentally-sensitive island community. Ozeki, the author, heightens the contrasts between the rich details of Japanese culture and the more free-ranging multi-cultural homespun life of the quirky, quasi-comical islanders who, one by one, come to know of the existence of the diary and are impatient to learn its instalments. Thus, even as it amplifies its story, the diary’s centrality eclipses the rest of the novel.

Nao’s pilgrimage into the mountains, with her father, to meet their 104-year-old ancestor, a Zen Buddhist, is the turning point of the story. There they come upon wartime letters, written by Nao’s great-uncle Haruki, a reluctant kamikaze pilot.

These letters offer a reference point and a yardstick by which we measure all the other suffering and wisdom in the book. Haruki, though dead, is a potent presence linking his family’s generations, and he is recovered, as is Nao, through the power of words to slip across time and to be made anew.

Ruth Ozeki respects the mysteries of words and the lives they record as much as create. A Tale for the Time Being defies synopsis. It incorporates a Zen Buddhist view of the world into the philosophical entanglements and whimsies of Schrodinger and the physicist Hugh Everett.

It is playful, amused and amusing and it pulls off a beautiful ending that might have been trite, but instead is triste. Four hundred pages seems just the right length.